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Joseph Beuys

Beuys, Joseph (yōˈzĕf bois) [key], 1921–86, German artist, b. Krefeld; one of the most influential of postmodern artists. Drafted into the Luftwaffe during World War II, he was wounded several times and in 1943 was shot down over Crimea. Nearly frozen, he was found by Tatar nomads who saved his life by wrapping him in felt and fur—materials that he later often used in his work and that assumed iconic, life-affirming stature in it. He studied (1947–51) and later taught at the State Art Academy in Düsseldorf, where he was (1961–72) professor of sculpture. A member of the neo-Dada group Fluxus during the early 1960s, Beuys pioneered certain ritualized latter-day happenings that he called Actions; they were among the first contemporary examples of performance art. Later in the 1960s he and his art turned toward left-wing politics; he was a founder (1967) of the German Students party and a Green party activist in the 1970s.

With his room-filling temporary constructions, Beuys also pioneered the movement that led to installation art. In his installations and other sculptural work Beuys included such elements as food, dead animals, wire, wood, cloth, automobiles, musical instruments, scraps of various materials, and many other likely and unlikely objects. In these unconventional, often obsessional, and sometimes disturbing pieces and in his many drawings and posters, Beuys rejected abstract art in favor of an aesthetic that relied heavily on his own experience and that elevated subject matter to utmost importance. Thematically, he was apt to touch on such issues as the environment, politics, and humanity's relationship with nature. Famous in the international art world by the 1970s, Beuys had an important impact on an emerging group of avant-garde artists, first in Europe and later in the United States.

See J. F. Moffitt, Occultism in Avant-Garde Art: The Case of Joseph Beuys (1988); H. Stackelhaus, Joseph Beuys (1991); A. Temkin and B. Rose, Thinking Is Form: The Drawings of Joseph Beuys (1992).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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